October is over and so is my Faust Month Showdown! I was interested in seeing how different composers treated the same dramatic material and Faust is a story that got a LOT of composers writing operas. I wasn’t able to access all the ones I would have liked but I certainly hit the big ones. I thought about doing this challenge for Romeo and Juliet but…nah.
THE CHAMPION: Boito’s Mefistofele!
THE CHALLENGER: Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress!
Both are Faust stories but with slightly peculiar slants. Boito focuses more on the Devil than on Faust. Stravinsky wrote Faust but essentially changed the names to protect the innocent. I watched both operas on the Naxos Video Library only to discover irritations with both productions. The Mefistofele performance was with the San Francisco Opera and featured what can only be described as a scenery-chewing performance by Sam Ramey. Sadly, the video was without subtitles. I was pretty solid on the plot, of course, but I do like to know what they are saying and when. But when it comes to scenery-chewing, this was a Grand Grand Grand Grand production. San Francisco knows how to do this stuff up right. In many ways, I think Boito is seen as a “one hit wonder” with this opera but what a hit it is! Lush, melodic, dramatic, it does all the right stuff. I’m sure it would get more play than Gounod if it didn’t need such a once-in-a-generation bass to handle the main role.
My colleague told me about a great video of Rake and I wanted to check it out. Sadly, what I saw was a rehash of the Glynbourne production I had already watched (and didn’t care for that much). The imagery is all based on the original woodcuts/artwork and just comes across as flat and wooden. Turns out there is a different staging (set in Texas it appears) which is visually more interesting and active but you have to hunt for it (it wasn’t on the Opera page in Naxos. Makes me wonder what else I’m missing).
I’ve never been a fan of Stravinsky’s vocal writing. Never. It sounds stilted and forced and the rhythms seem to fight the words all the time. I find this to be true with Rake but I do agree that “No Word from Tom/Quietly, night” is the finest bit of vocal writing the man ever did. I can totally see why Stravinsky and Britten hated each other. Britten could clearly do stuff with the voice that Stravinsky wanted to but couldn’t/didn’t. So there’s that…
AND THE WINNER IS:
Mefistofele! Because Boito could write for voices as if they were voices. You have no idea how much Stravinsky’s vocal writing bothers me. It makes me twitch. Like, more than a little.
SO! That puts Boito in the final round against Gounod. Two Grand Opera examples of Faust-ness! Who did it best? Who is the overall winner?
ANNA NICOLE by Marc Anthony Turnage
Yes. This opera. It wins at Faust in a way that a regular Faust story couldn’t possibly win. I bought the DVD of this opera about a year ago and was floored at how much I liked it. I thought it would be a joke piece, not to be taken seriously, but I’ll be damned if they didn’t turn Anna Nicole into a tragic figure (nyuk nyuk). But seriously, Anna Nicole sells her soul to a more convincing devil than the actual Devil. She makes a lot of bad decisions and dies a tragic death. I connected with her story more than I connected to Faust’s. Musically, this opera is sharp, witty, inventive, attractive, approachable, and meaningful. And the performance? Crazy good. This is something everyone needs to see. It is what “traditional opera” should be in the 21st century.